Lewis Stevenson admits he and his Easter Road team-mates have been on something of an adventure – but it’s not one he’s keen to repeat in a hurry.
Hibs’ longest serving player confessed to mixed emotions of joy and relief as the Capital club’s three-year exile in the Championship finally came to an end, Neil Lennon’s players taking the title with three games to spare with a stylish 3-0 win over Queen of the South.
Although he insisted it was inevitable a club of Hibs’ size would win promotion, Stevenson argued that the pain suffered in the past few seasons was dulled by lifting the Scottish Cup, that victory after 114 years of trying undoubtedly raising spirits among players and fans alike.
As one of the few remaining at the club from the day Hamilton consigned them to the drop – only Jason Cummings also started that fateful play-off second leg while Alex Harris and Jordon Forster were on the bench – Stevenson admitted: “It’s only been three years, but it does feel a lot longer than that.
“There have been times I’ve thought, ‘this is harder thought’. It’s been a long time coming, it’s been a bit of an adventure. We’ve come down and had some low moments.
“But if you told me we’d come down, win the Scottish Cup and get back in the third year I would probably have taken that.”
However, Stevenson revealed he believes life could have been so much tougher had it not been for that Hampden win over Rangers, coming as it did only days after Falkirk came from behind to defeat them their promotion play-off.
The 29-year-old, who clocked up his 359th game in a green-and-white shirt at the weekend, said: “I know we keep on abut the cup but that did lift it, not just the players but the support which this season has been phenomenal. I don’t think it would have been like that had we not won the cup.”
A measure of the change in fortunes at Easter Road is the fact Lennon’s players have been enjoying home gates averaging more than 15,000 for league games, with the biggest attendance being 18,786 while more than 8000 season tickets have already been sold in anticipation of returning to the Premiership.
Stevenson said: “It’s great to have the support but it also adds a bit of pressure. Teams can come here with no fear, it’s a shot to nothing.
“We’ve had to deal with it every week, we have been expected to win. It’s tough, but we have dealt with it a lot better. We’ve played 33 games so far but it’s tough to win a league and it’s been shown how tough it can be.
“We would probably have liked a few more wins, but we’ve only been beaten three times in the league.”
On his arrival at Easter Road, succeeding Alan Stubbs after his surprise decision to quit for Rotherham United, Lennon branded his new side “a boy band” and immediately vowed to change the mindset of his players, something Stevenson agrees he has achieved with some success.
The left back said: “He definitely has. Every day he moans and it is hard at times. But he does get the best out of us. We are winners and to be beaten only three times so far in the league shows the mentality we have that we want to be winners.”
Lennon also publicly criticised his charges for a dismal performance away to Raith Rovers and, revealed Stevenson, each and every one of them has felt the sharp end of their manager’s tongue at one point or another.
Joking that a few members of the press had also found out what it was like to get on the wrong side of Lennon, his ninth manager, he said: “I’ve had a few myself. They are not pleasant as you will know.
“You don’t want to get on the wrong side of him. He’s a winner and he wants us to be winners. He’s changed the mentality.”
Having enjoyed trips to grounds such as Celtic Park and Ibrox, travelling to the likes of Cowdenbeath’s Central Park was something of a shock for Stevenson and his team-mates but, he claimed, Hibs as a club return to the top flight much stronger.
He said: “It’s been an adventure. Football can be played at Celtic Park or Ibrox, but it can also be played at Central Park. It’s the same game and you have to perform wherever the game takes you. I think you have to get yourself up for it, it’s a mental thing.
“With hindsight it’s maybe worked out better. The club is in a better position now. Everyone is together, the players, the fans. There’s a connection there which is definitely different to a few years ago.”
There were, though, some dark moments, leaving Stevenson to admit he’d had been left feeling a void of under-achievement had promotion eluded Hibs yet again.
He said: “The play-offs have been tough, especially the Falkirk one. That was hard and I think if we had not won the cup it would have been hard to bounce back.
“I was part of the team that came down and I felt I had to right some wrongs and I almost feel I have party redeemed that by being part of the team going back up.”
A Championship winners’ medal is another for Stevenson to add to his collection, already the only Hibs player to have won both the Scottish and League Cup.
But there is a chance for one more with Hibs continuing their defence of the cup when they face Aberdeen in Saturday’s semi-final at Hampden.
Stevenson said: “We’ve got one this season and have a great chance of another bit of silverware so now we can focus on that.”
So it’s Hibs for the double? “I’m not saying that,” retorted Stevenson.